Chapter 5

Burning Desires

I thought the poker game had broken up for good, but it wasn't long before the men came back in and took their seats. With one player already missing, Peter didn't want me to leave the game. As the afternoon passed, Peter and I won every penny the other men brought to play. It didn't take long to realize he wasn't playing a solo game, but he was playing as if we were a team. He had a way of chatting with each of the players, and just the way he spoke seemed to send me a message. He had an uncanny way of knowing when someone was bluffing, and in the way I read his cues, I too knew.

As the day wore on, new players came to join the game, and the others left—usually with a warning to watch out for us. I wanted to leave and go spend time with Felipa, but every time I got up, Peter seemed worried I'd leave the game. Even visits to the outhouse made him look suspicious. When I finally insisted we take a break for supper, he grudgingly agreed.

In the other room Felipa served us both, with a shy smile to me alone. I felt ashamed that she'd worked so hard making enough food for everyone at the inn, while I'd been sitting idle and playing cards. Shimaa would have had harsh words for me if I were still living at home. Once we were finished eating, I stayed with Felipa, clearing tables and washing dishes, as she served the people who came in to eat. Peter wasn't happy about the way I'd 'abandoned' him.

"I can't believe you'd let some..." I could tell he was about to call her something rude, and I fixed my eyes on his in warning. "...girl come before a friend. You're letting me down, Sergeant." He gave me a sour look, and I smiled back.

"I'm just giving the other men a fighting chance to keep their money. You know, if you kill all the chickens for dinner, you won't have any eggs for breakfast."

He looked at me with such confusion, and I realized even early in the evening, he'd had too much to drink.

"What kinda farm boy logic is that? What in hell do chickens and eggs have to do with fleecing a few locals?" As soon as he realized his reference to sheep, he grinned. "Maybe you better gimme a break; it seems your horse sense is rubbing off on me. Next thing you know, I'll be playing with a dog's balls to predict the weather." We both chuckled at that image. "I don't want to be watching a squirrel gather nuts, to learn how many womanly thighs I'll get between." We laughed at his joking, but the way he glanced at Felipa made me stop laughing.

"Don't talk about her, and don't even think about her if you can't be respectful!" He swatted away my finger pointing at his face.

"Sergeant Whitlock's in love." His voice had the sing-song quality only drunks and children managed to do well.

I lowered my voice as I looked around to make sure she wasn't listening. "I am not."

"Could'a fooled me." He laughed and danced around the room, as if waltzing without a partner. As he passed, he made loud kissing noises at me. "I'll dance at your wedding." I fought to control my irritation as he danced himself out of the room.

I went to find Felipa, who was scrubbing pots in the cook house. I took over the task for her, but she never slowed down in her work. She had tables to wash, floors to sweep, root vegetables to clean and food that needed to be brought up from the cellar. I'd seen Shimaa work hard to keep the family fed and clothed, but Felipa was trying to keep all the guests fed and comfortable. Her brother was cleaning rooms and making beds, as well as caring for the animals in the stable. Her uncle didn't seem to be much help, though he was taking care of the financial matters with the guests.

Once the cook house was in order, I managed to steal a kiss, pulling her close and touching her in a way that made her sigh. Then I left her to a sewing project she was working on, making curtains for the windows. In the saloon, Peter was once again surrounded by men eager to lose their money to him. I watched as they finished a round, and noticed something I'd missed before.

He was a storyteller, and as he played the game he was telling them about an encounter his regiment had with some belligerent Comanche's. He'd drawn me into the story, about how he'd taken his green recruits against the seasoned warriors and managed to best them by sneaking into their camp and setting their horses free. It was then I realized his story was complete bunk. I'd had enough experience with such warriors, to know that our boys would never have been able to sneak up on veteran scouts. They'd smell our campfires and latrines on the wind even before we were within a mile of them. They'd be able to see our pale faces even in the dark, and that's if the sounds of our boots didn't give us away.

I was trying not to draw attention with my laughter, but he noticed right away, even as I hid my face.

"Would y'all care to share what's so funny, Sergeant Whitlock?" His voice snapped me to attention with its challenge.

"No sir, it's nothing important." All the men at his table turned to look my way. It was a different group than he'd played with earlier.

"I'll decide if it's important, Sergeant. Come and take a seat, right here." He pointed at a chair across from him. He was smiling, but the smile didn't touch his eyes. The men moved over so I could sit, and Peter dealt me in without asking.

"So Sergeant, I take it from your laughter that you don't believe me and my men sneaked into an Apache camp..."

"You said it was Comanche, Sir."

"I also told you not to call me Sir while we were on leave, but you seem to have forgotten that little detail."

"I've been trained well. Sir." The men around us seemed to enjoy the back and forth between us. I watched Peter, and he knew very well that they weren't paying as much attention to their cards. I started to relax a bit, thinking that I was now part of the show.

"So, you don't believe my story?" He met my eyes without a hint of a grin.

"I... I wouldn't say you were lying, Sir. Maybe if the whole Comanche camp was ill, or drunk..."

"...or maybe..." He cut in over me. "...maybe my story isn't about the Comanche at all. Maybe I'm telling a story about field training, where I had to take a bunch of green recruits against a trained squad for weekend maneuvers." He grinned at me, though I still wasn't sure if he was telling the truth, until he continued.

"Colonel March had something to prove against that fancy General from Kentucky." He was lying again. We both knew it was Colonel Marsh, and even if he were drunk he'd never make that mistake. "He came marching into our camp with his honor guard, trying to tell the colonel everything he was doing wrong. In the time he was there, he had everyone jumping through hoops, including my men. One night in the mess, words were exchanged between his men and ours."

Everyone was listening to him, and he easily won the hand, then he began to deal again. "When all the fighting was finished, we couldn't tell who belonged to which unit, who had started the fight, who had thrown the first bowl of soup, or who had come out the winner. I took charge of my men, and ordered them to clean the mess from top to bottom. The General ordered his squad to wash all the uniforms. That should have been the end of it, but it wasn't." We were all hanging on his every word, but I was the only one who knew it was a complete fiction.

"It took all night to clean up the mess, and I know the other men worked just as long to wash all the uniforms. The next day, every one of our uniforms was drying on the line, cleaner than the day they'd been issued to us. It wasn't until the next day that we realized the General's men had done us dirty. Every one of my men broke out in a rash—poison ivy. As near as we could tell, they'd mixed it into the rinse water, and let the oil get on our uniforms. The worst part was it was in our skivvies, and we had rashes and blisters where the sun didn't shine." Some of the men groaned at his story, and some were laughing so hard they could barely hold their cards.

"The Colonel was madder than I'd ever seen him, and he demanded the General see to it we were issued new uniforms, since there was no way we'd be able to wear ours again. Then the General made a mistake; he denied his men had anything to do with the uniform tampering. But if we wanted to challenge them, they'd be happy to see we got the new uniforms if we won. And that's how we ended up doing drills against seasoned veterans."

I was impressed with the way he pulled his story together. He went on to tell how his unit had used cunning and tricks to make the visitors—whom they'd nicknamed Comanche's—think they were lost and unable to find the veterans. They then stole their horses in the night and made it back to camp with their mounts and their flag. As I laughed along with the men at the table, Peter had them ante up; he'd won another hand.

"So Jasper, I'm sure you've had a run in or two with real Indians, being a rancher and all. Why don't you tell us about it. I was too surprised to be angry, at the way he'd handed the listeners over to me. As they stared at me, Peter winked. I knew what I had to do, and I told a story I was sure topped his in ridiculous lying and unbelievable adventures.

"You bet I have, Peter..." I went on to tell a variation of my first night with Fawn Eyes. Instead of being tricked into taking her as a mate, I told of how I was kidnapped, and held for ransom. Father didn't come to collect his errant son, but instead brought a rare and sacred white buffalo to trade for his boy. We made the swap, and it was only then that they discovered the Buffalo was coated in whitewash. I told how we'd raced back home, dodging arrows and spears, until we were met by my brothers at our property line. They'd come armed with guns, and the Indians were turned back by superior firepower.

"After all that, I've still got the chief's favorite knife." I pulled my own hand-me-down Bowie knife and laid it on the table. The men all looked at it, like they expected it to do something unusual. "You can see here, he carved his initials in the hilt." I showed them the T.W. my brother Thomas had etched into the wooden handle. "That stands for Ten Wolves. Of course it used to have a leather cord wrapped around it, with some feathers and a lock of hair on it."

"Was the hair from a scalp?" One young man couldn't contain his curiosity.

"The hair was black; it probably came from his wife or a daughter." The lying was getting easier.

"Not all Indians have black hair." Peter gave me a direct look. "Sometimes, if their blood is mixed, they can even have yellow hair; isn't that right Sergeant Whitlock?"

At first I felt like he'd stepped over the line to reveal something about me that wasn't his story to tell. Then I remembered how the men had treated me differently when they learned of my shimaa, and I smiled.

"That's absolutely true, Captain Olander. One would never think that I myself was half Apache, since I look so much like my father."

"Is that true?" The same young man's eyes grew wide, and he looked at me as if he'd never seen me. I'd left out the part about my mother's mixed race, and nodded solemnly. I watched his face change then, but it wasn't a look of respect he gave me.

"Apache's killed my brother!" In a blur, he snatched my knife and leaped on me. We both hit the floor, and he tried to stick me with my own knife. He was bigger than I was, and maybe I had those Apache's to thank, that he hadn't grown up with a couple older brothers like I did. I may have been smaller, and he may have had the upper hand, but I knew every dirty trick a little brother could learn.

With my left hand, I held his knife hand, and hit him several times in the ribs with my right. A knee in the groin weakened him enough I was able to flip him off me. Still, he was powerfully enraged, and I wasn't quite up before he tackled me again. We skidded into some chairs and my head hit the floor. I twisted as the knife came down, but still felt it burn along my arm.

I took hold of his knife hand, before he could take another stab at me. I caught his thumb and yanked it back. With a yelp he released the knife, and I butted him in the nose with my head. He rewarded me with another cry of pain. A good push with my boots put me on top, and I hit him several times in the face, before I realized he wasn't fighting back.

"If I were a full Apache, you would die now. Be thankful God looks out for children and fools." I'd leaned forward to speak into his ear, and his eyes grew wide as I spoke the words in Apache. I reached out and snagged my knife, then on impulse I grabbed a handful of his hair. With my knife up by his forehead, he clearly thought I was going to scalp him. Instead I cut a lock of his hair, close to his head. When I got up, I showed my trophy to the rest of the men.

They weren't as awed as the men in my unit, but they kept a respectful distance as they helped the man up, and flanked him as they lead him from the saloon, and I sat down at the table. Peter just stared at me.

"Why didn't you help?" I remembered how I'd helped him out when he'd been attacked.

"You had it handled, and I had my gun ready the whole time. Why should I waste good ammo?" The idea that my life wasn't worth the cost of a bullet was an unbelievable insult. Then I realized he was joking. "Besides, I might get blood on the uniform." He cracked a smile at his cut down, and I had to laugh along with him.

"Yeah, and don't forget how loud it would be inside; it'd probably make your ears ring for hours." I added my own reason for why he didn't shoot the kid.

"And it would almost certainly mean the game was over." We were both laughing hard, and I was leaning on the table when he stopped laughing.

"I think we need to take a look at that." He pointed to my left arm, and it was then I realized I was bleeding quite heavily. Drops of blood lazily fell into a small puddle on the floor.

"Damn. I knew he hit me but I thought it was just a scratch." It was fascinating to watch the blood dripping. It looked like it was someone else's, since I didn't feel much pain from the cut. I was trying to roll up the sleeve, when Peter took hold of it and yanked. It split up the seem, and the tatters exposed the cut on my arm. It was a nice, deep gash, and without a word the bar maid was at my side and taking charge.

Between her and Peter, they made me lie down on the wood plank floor, though I tried to insist that I was fine. She wrapped my arm in what looked like an apron, then left me there to go for more supplies.

"You ruined my shirt." I tried to recapture the light mood we'd had, but he didn't look like he was interested in joking.

"Don't worry about the damned shirt; I brought an extra one. Are you trying to get yourself killed?"

"It's just a little cut; I'll be fine."

"It's not that little; you're losing a lot of blood." We both looked, and the apron was already soaked.

"Tie it around the top of my arm." I tried to show him what I was talking about, as I tugged on the apron ties. He understood, as we'd both seen the surgeon use the technique to slow bleeding before. Peter wrapped the apron around my arm and twisted it until the bleeding all but stopped.

The bar maid returned with Felipa, and she brought her sewing kit. Felipa impressed me with her cool head, as she got right to work on me. The bar maid cleaned the wound with a bottle of booze that burned like fire, while Felipa held her needle over a candle flame. She sewed up my cut with neat, careful stitches. I did my best to pretend the whole process didn't hurt, even while my teeth ached from clenching them, and I was bathed in sweat. When she was finished she wrapped it in a clean, white bandage, and I reminded Peter to untie the apron.

My fingers tingled as my blood flowed again, but the bandage stayed mostly white. Between the three of them, I was able to stand, though my head felt light and the room spun.

"Take him up and put him to bed." Peter was giving orders to Felipa, and it irritated me that he commanded her like she was his subordinate. She didn't say a word, but put her arm around me to guide me from the room.

"What, no more poker?" My grin didn't seem to lighten his mood any.

"Go to bed Sergeant. I think I can handle lightening my fellow player's loads without you." His smile told me he wasn't so worried I was going to die on him. I was surprised how much I needed to see that.

She may have been small, but Felipa was strong enough to help me from the room and up the steps. I didn't feel like I had to be brave once I was through the doors. My arm hurt like crazy, and as we made the top of the stairs, I felt like I could easily tumble back down. She pulled me along, and I leaned heavily on her for support. I don't recall much beyond her guiding me to the bed. I watched her take off my boots, and even though it reminded me of the night before, I couldn't hold my eyes open.

Hot. I was hot and sweating, and the dark closed in around me. I fought to be free from whatever it was that confined me. I kicked and struggled, and felt pain when I lashed out at invisible restraints.

"Hold still, Jasper." Her words were soft, as I focused on a shadowy form in the dim glow of the firelight. "Drink this." She held a cup to my lips and icy relief spilled down my throat and chin. She held me in the bend of her arm like a baby, and I gazed up at her. My love.

"Fawn Eyes." My whisper made her smile. "I missed you... I love you so much."

"I'm here. I'll take care of you." She held a cold, wet cloth to my head and wiped the sweat from my face. I felt like I was exposed in the desert sun, and she was a cold spring. She gave me water, and I clutched at her until she kissed me. I knew I would never let her go again. I closed my eyes and fell into delirium.

Rattlesnake poison coursed through my veins from the fiery bite on my arm. I knew I was dying. Even my eyes felt like they were melting as I watched Fawn Eyes change the bandage on my arm. Swollen and red, the snakebite put a worried frown on her face. I screamed as she doused it in something that burned. She slathered it with some Apache concoction, made from cactus needles, scorpion venom, and lamp oil. The arm would have to come of, I was certain.

With the bite covered, she worked at undressing me. I was only wearing my undergarment, and she had a tough time getting me out of it—even though I tried to help her. My body glistened with sweat in the firelight. I was dismayed that I couldn't become aroused, even though I desperately wanted to make love to my wife just one more time before I died. She tirelessly bathed me with a soft wet cloth, whispered comforting words, and placed gentle kisses in the path of her cooling touch.

I knew it was morning when the sun peeked around the edges of the curtain. I was alone in an unfamiliar place. The fireplace reminded me of home, but it wasn't home. I was thirsty, but I was too weak to even reach for the pitcher on the table beside me. I heard noise in the hallway outside the door. I vaguely remembered I was in some kind of hotel, but I didn't know why. I wondered who had stolen my clothes.

The door opened and she floated into the room. Beauty. Grace. Love. "I'm going to cover up up, Jasper. Your commander wants to see how you're doing." I watched her as she pulled a sheet over me, and a thin, woven blanket. I tried to tell her how much I loved her, but my voice came out as a dry rasp. She poured me a glass of water, and held my head, helping me drink. She smoothed the wet hair from my face, then kissed my forehead. I wrapped my arms around her and held her as tight as I could—which wasn't tight at all.

She pulled away as the door opened. A tall blond man in a uniform swaggered into the room and grinned down at me.

"I might have known I'd find you lollygagging in your bed with a pretty girl. This better not be an attempt to delay our return to the fort, Sergeant Whitlock. We only have a four day pass, and I for one don't want to be flogged for desertion because you can't be parted from this pretty lass." He laughed, but I could tell he wasn't really amused.

I felt like I should know him, but I couldn't come up with a name. He walked around the bed, and took hold of my arm. He moved the bandages, and had a long look at my snake bite.

"It looks like it's festering pretty bad." He was talking to Fawn Eyes, like I wasn't even in the room. "I've seen some like this go bad, and no matter how hard we try, we lose them. The Sergeant here is a fighter, and I know you're taking good care of him. Let me know if he gets any worse, or if his fever breaks. Don't worry about the other guests. I'll make sure they're taken care of, and you make sure Jasper gets everything he needs."

He left us, and I caught her hand before she moved away from me. "Don't go." It was all I could say, and I was too weak to even hold on to her. She went to the door and closed it tight, then came back to me. I watched in awe as she undressed down to her chemise, then she pulled back the covers and climbed into bed beside me.

She was cool, soft comfort snuggled against me. She arranged my arm around her and rested her head on my shoulder. I fought a losing battle to stay with her, and darkness claimed me again.

It was dark when I awoke. As soon as I struggled to get out of bed, she awoke. Felipa had been sleeping by my side, but I didn't recall how that came to be. She pushed me back down in bed, then hurried to get me water. She wanted to hold it for me, but I took it from her and drank my fill. She sat on the edge of the bed, rested her hand against my forehead and smiled.

"Your fever's broken."

"How long have I been in bed?"

"It's been two days. I thought... I thought you were going to die." Her lip trembled and she blinked a tear from her eye. "I've been so worried about you..."

"Hush. I'm okay; it'll take more than a little cut and a fever to put an end to all my mischief." I grinned as I wiped the tear from her cheek. "You took care of me all this time, didn't you?"

"I... your commander took care of the guests for me. He found someone to do the cooking and everything. He wanted to make sure I could nurse you back to health."

"Is that what you wanted?" She blushed, and looked away.

"Of course I wanted you to get better..."

"...and I owe you a debt of gratitude." I reached out and fingered her thin chemise. "Would you give all the guests such personal attention if they were ill?"

"No!" She looked as if I'd slapped her. "I would never... not with anyone else. You... you're special."

It was all the encouragement I needed. I reached out and pulled her down to me. I kissed her lips, even as she tried to pull away from me.

"You're too weak, Jasper. I need to tell your commander your fever's broken..." I kissed her again over her protests. My left arm ached, and I felt like I'd been drained. I could feel the dried sweat on my skin, and my beard was just past the itchy new growth. But I wanted her, and lust is a powerful healer.

In moments, she quit struggling, and I pulled her beneath me. All she wore was the chemise, and as we kissed, I worked at pulling it up. My stomach growled, but I was hungry for something much better than food. My hands fondled the curves I had learned before, and I pressed my naked arousal against her.

Her soft sighs, and the way she moved with me let me know she wanted me as much as I wanted her. With the fabric finally pushed up past her waist, I made her mine. Even the blissful in and out of making love took a lot from me. I went slow, and rested against her as I kissed her neck, and gloried in the way we fit together.

It was taking a lot more out of me than I expected, and she seemed to understand. She broke our connection and wiggled away. Before I could question her in my disappointment, she had me roll onto my back. In one smooth move she pulled the chemise over her head, then straddled me. It took a couple tries, but then she guided me into her.

I never knew a woman could move like that. She must have been a fine horsewoman. As the thought crossed my mind, I smiled and surged up against her. I was her stallion, and I wrapped my hands around her waist and made sure she didn't lose her seat. Each time she came down against me, the impact made her body move in a way that inflamed me. She leaned forward, pressing her body against mine, while still managing to move in a way that made me glad I was a man.

As much as I wanted it to go on forever, we reached a point of overwhelming bliss. I was surprised to see she was as carried away as I was, and her soft cries blended with my moans and the squeak of the bed. She collapsed onto me with a sigh, and as her breathing slowed, she whispered in my ear.

"I love you, Jasper." I kissed her then, hoping to keep her from saying anything more. I certainly didn't want to answer back. How could she love me? I hadn't done a single thing to encourage her in such a way. What could she possibly expect from me—I was a soldier. I had no intention of falling in love with her. Love meant commitment and trust, and changing my whole life for her. No! I still loved my wife. I knew she was probably lost to me forever, but I wasn't ready to go down that road again.

Felipa pulled away from my energetic kissing, with a smile. She broke our intimate connection and snuggled against my side. I thought for sure she would expect some kind of declaration from me, but instead she tucked my arm around her and closed her eyes. I reached down and pulled a quilt over us, and in minutes we were both asleep.

Morning came with bright sun in my eyes, a warm girl in my arms, and pounding on my door. I only wanted one of those, but I had no choice but to answer the most demanding. Felipa hid all but her eyes beneath the blanket, as Peter barged through the unlocked door.

"So, you're not dead! I can tell the undertaker to quit building your coffin." He circled the bed to look at me, ignoring Felipa. "Were you planning to let me know, or did you just expect me to keep thinking I was going to have to train another Sergeant to take your place?" At the time I didn't realize his anger was born of worry. I thought he was truly upset that I'd messed up and extended our leave.

"I'm sorry, Sir, I was going to tell you in the morning..."

"The sun has been up for two hours! I thought the lass was just too afraid to tell me you'd breathed your last. What are you doing still in bed if your fever's broken?"

"Jasper still has to heal!" Felipa poked her head out to confront him. "He's too weak to be out of bed."

"But he's obviously not too weak to... never mind." He looked momentarily embarrassed, then spoke directly to me. "I expect to see you up and dressed before noon, do I make myself clear?"

"Yes sir."

"And stop calling me sir!" He stalked out before I could point out that he was the one giving the orders like a commanding officer.

It was the perfect excuse I needed to get out of bed and avoid confronting Felipa on her feelings. Maybe if I ignored it, the 'I love you' would just go away. By the time I'd struggled into my clothes, I was feeling good enough to shake off her help. Going down the stairs I needed to use the railing, as she hovered like a mother hen. I drew the line at allowing her to accompany me to the outhouse.

Back inside there was food, and lots of cold tea to quench my thirst. Peter joined me, which sent Felipa ducking out the door.

"She seems to be a bit stuck on you." His words made me lose what little appetite I had.

"She says she's in love with me." I lowered my voice, fearing she would hear.

He laughed. "That's not such a bad thing, is it? It might be nice to have a pretty, young girl to keep you warm whenever you're away from the fort. It's a good thing you're already carrying a torch for her. Maybe some day after you're discharged, you can marry her and have a bunch of young'en's"

"No! That's not going to happen. I don't love her, and I'm definitely not going to marry the girl! She's not the kind of girl to chase after the army and wait for me to have time to bed her, and... I don't have anything else to offer her."

"Well then it looks like you are in a bit of a mess then. She's clearly smitten with you. She took care of you the whole time you were down. You're lucky her daddy isn't around to force the issue. I don't think even I could save you from an angry papa.

With my face in my hands I groaned. I promised myself I wouldn't let Peter lead me astray again. But I still had to get myself out of the situation with Felipa.

After I'd eaten, I encouraged her to show me the rose garden the place was named for. There were no roses yet, only early blossoms on the fruit trees. She seemed happy to be alone with me, and she held my arm as we walked. When we were behind a large shrub, she pulled me to her for a kiss. I struggled away from her and held her arms. As she met my eyes, the smile on her face withered.

"Felipa, I..." I didn't know what to say to her.

"You're leaving." I could hear the disappointment in her voice. "I was afraid that as soon as you were better, you'd have to go." Her smile returned. "I'll wait for you. Many army men come here, it can't be that long, right?"

"No." I was quiet a while. "Felipa, we can't... we can't be together. We can't pretend I'm free to marry you some day. That's never going to happen. It was really nice to be with you these past few days, but it's over now..."

"But you love me; you said so just yesterday! If I love you, and you love me, then... I'll wait for you."

"I don't know what you think you heard, but I didn't say that. I... I'm sorry, Felipa, but I don't love you. I'm never going to marry you..."

"You said it! You looked right at me and begged me never to leave you!" She'd started crying, and I felt about as low as I could get. "You even called me the most beautiful name. Fawn Eyes. I love you, Jasper, how can you do this to me?" It all clicked into place. I barely remembered my delirious rambling, but what she said reminded me of what I'd thought was a dream.

"You're not Fawn Eyes, she's my wife." Her slap almost knocked me down in my weakness. "I'm sorry... I didn't mean for you to get hurt..."

"I was a virgin! At first I thought it would just be good to find a handsome young man and get it over with. But you treated me better than any man ever did... and I thought you might fall for me. I can't believe I was such a fool! You never said you were married—you've made me an adulteress!" Her anger was at least taking the place of her tears, and I didn't tell her I wasn't married. "Just leave me alone, Jasper Whitlock; I don't want to be around you! I wish I'd never bedded you—I wish I'd never laid eyes on you!"

She left me standing there as she stormed back to the inn. My cheek stung. I should have felt relieved to have it behind me, but I felt strangely depressed and melancholy. I found a bench in the garden and sat there pondering the girl. She was a good woman, with strong character, responsibility, and a gentle spirit where it mattered. But I couldn't love her. She deserved to have a man who would treat her like a lady. She deserved someone who would marry her and settle down to raise a family with her. I wasn't that man.

I took Molasses and rode to the stream for a bath in the noonday sun. Under the bandage, I found my wound was beginning to heal, and I felt better after I'd washed and shaved. I spent time with Peter in the saloon, and did my utmost to pretend Felipa didn't matter.

The evening meal was served by her brother, who brought us stew and bread. He shot evil looks at me, while I tried to be pleasant. Peter tried to cheer me up, and even gave me his extra shirt. I laughed, because he'd sewn his rank on the shirt, and I could be disciplined for impersonating an officer.

"I guess you'll have to decide what's more worrisome, being out of uniform, or being in the wrong uniform—sir." He laughed at his joke. "You could ask that little gal to sew up your other shirt, but I think she'd be more likely to stick you full of pins after this morning."

We made plans to leave in the morning, and we'd only be a day late returning to the fort. Peter had plans for us to be up most of the night playing poker, and I had no reason to go against his wishes. We were seated at our usual table, and I had my back to the door. The piano player was just getting warmed up, when everyone stopped talking and turned toward the door.

I barely recognized the woman who stood in the doorway. Felipa wore a yellow satin dress cut low on her chest, and her hair was caught up in a mass of curls on her head. Her lips were painted red, and her eyes were outlined in black. The blush staining her cheeks wasn't entirely natural. The barmaid Peter liked beckoned to her, and she sashayed to the bar. The two woman chatted and giggled, as every man in the place watched, myself included. She never so much as looked my way.

Peter got my attention and pointed toward the door. The man standing there was one of those we'd played against, and our eyes met. His hair looked ridiculous, with a big chunk missing from the front. He was the man who'd tried to kill me. His insolent grin had me pushing my chair back, but Felipa made me stop.

I watched as her smile made him turn away from me. She came around the bar, and rushed into his arms. He held her tight, and kissed her there in front of everyone. Then he glanced my way to make sure I hadn't missed the show. I stood, and Peter grabbed my arm.

"Careful now, Son, you're about to make a very bad mistake." He stood and pulled me out the back door. He lead me into the cold night, and it wasn't enough to cool the anger I felt.

"Do you love the girl?" His question caught me off guard.

"That's not what this is about! He tried to kill me, I'm not going to let him..."

"It's not about him, and you damn well know it! Do you love that girl, Sergeant Whitlock? Do you want her? I can tell you one thing for sure, women don't wait on men—not for long anyway. If you want her, I'll go back in there and help you fight for her. But if you don't want her, you've got no right interfering with her plans."

"What plans? Is it her plan to humiliate me?"

"It's not about you. She's doing what she has to do to keep the wolf from the door. A girl like that doesn't have very many options. She could hope to find a husband to take care of her, or maybe work with her parents to take care of the inn. But this place isn't stable, and she's known all along that her future was probably in the saloon. She decided this afternoon, that if she didn't have a hope of getting married, she would take her only other real option."

"She's going to work in the saloon instead of the inn? How will that change anything?"

"Open your eyes! She's not a bar maid, that's just a small part of it. She's working the saloon to entertain the men." His words stunned me as they worked their way into my head. I hadn't let her go to find a better man who would make her a decent husband. I'd turned her away and she was going to become a whore!

I said some words that would have earned me a whupping back home. "Why is she doing this now? She's too young for this, Peter."

"The young ones make more money. Part of the reason her parents left her here was so she could make the transition and they wouldn't have to watch. Don't look at me like that, I hear things." He'd let go of me, and I was too overwhelmed to even be angry.

"I meant what I said; if you want her we'll go back in and take that man apart. But if you don't want to make an honest woman of her, then you need to let her choose her own way.

It was harder than I imagined walking back inside, knowing I wasn't going to fight for her. I took my seat at the table, and did my best not to look at the woman who'd nursed me back to health, and declared her love for me—the woman who was sitting on the lap of a man who had tried to kill me.

He wasn't prepared to leave me alone, and he moved to another table where I had a clear view of them. As I lost one hand of poker after another, he kissed Felipa's neck, held her on his lap, sent her to wait on him and pour him drinks, and he even fondled her breasts while I watched. He shot me a challenging look when he took her by the hand and lead her from the room. His arm wrapped possessively around her waist as they went into the inn.

Peter tried to distract me, but it wasn't working. Part of me wanted to fight for her, but part of me just wanted to saddle up Molasses and ride back to the fort. Every time I could remember feeling like that, there was a woman involved. I wanted to be done with them!

I made excuses to leave the table; I really was exhausted after my fever. Peter shot me a warning look as I headed for my room.

"Trust me, I'm not going to start something; I'm just going to get some sleep. I want to be gone first thing in the morning." They were brave words. I climbed the stairs, and I was halfway down the hall when I was forced to regret my decision.

They were loud. The bed springs made a terrible racket, but it wasn't enough to cover up his grunts and moans. It wasn't enough to keep me from hearing her sharp cries coming from his room. I stood there, listening to the rhythm of their coupling. I heard him compliment her on her breasts and every other female attribute. I heard him giving her orders on what he liked and what he wanted her to do. I heard enough to know she did everything she was asked. It was only after his loud finish that I found the strength to silently move past the door.

I was awake long after I'd snuffed the lamp and climbed into bed. I couldn't believe I'd turned my back on her, and she'd turned to having sex for money. Too late I felt that maybe, just maybe I had some feelings for the girl. Too late I realized I was partially responsible for her being in his room, and in his bed, lying under him as he paid for the right to use her body. I'd left her to the wolves.

The next morning I was up at dawn, and I had Molasses saddled and all my things packed up before Peter was even out of bed. He brought me ham and a biscuit, and we filled all our canteens from the well before we left. Las Rosas was long behind us, and still we rode in silence.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Peter tried again to get me to open up.


A/N: I know it seems like forever since I've updated. This is a long chapter, but it's because I tried to find a good place to stop. I've currently got five stories on my task bar, and I'm having to put two on temporary hiatus. This is one I'm setting aside, until I finish one of the others. This should help me with my update schedule, but unfortunately it means I won't be writing on this one for a while. I hate to do this, as it's my goal to always finish what I start.

I'm asking that you put this on alert if you'd like to finish reading it when it gets going again. I have the plot outlined, and I intend to finish it. I won't start any new stories until I can mark this one complete. I'm sorry to do this to my faithful readers, but I need to be able to manage my time better. Thanks for reading this far.